I had asked for a 5 am wake up call, as I had slept late. The bags were packed but I had to complete the blog and upload the same before departing from Mandalay. I did that without hassle since WiFi connectivity early morning is much better than the rest of the day. The restaurant has two sections for the breakfast buffet – the continental and the local. While I helped myself to massive helpings of watermelon, papaya, toasts, eggs and sausage, I also checked out the local fare. Fried rice, noodles, konji, fried chicken, carp curry and much, much more was available. I had a piece of the fried chicken and the carp – the latter was very tasty. As usual, I avoided hot beverage and settled for three tall glasses of orange juice.
At the start of the day itself it was told that we would break for lunch at the 115th mile of restaurants. With the heavy breakfast I never thought that I will be hungry any time before 1 pm. However, the road condition was such that we reached the lunch destination before 11 am! I delayed the lunch engagement a bit by fuelling and getting the air checked. Possibly because of the continuous drive from Mandalay, covering 250 miles in four hours, the tyre pressure was a bit in excess. It was corrected. Prior to the start of the day’s drive my co-travellers had been apprehensive about the condition of the tyres. That reflected in the frequent signages by the side of the expressway that warned about tyre bursts leading to major accidents. Indeed, I did see vestiges of previous instances of tyre bursts on the road. One feature of the expressway is the availability of wide dirt tracks, what we call service lanes, meant for the exclusive use of bullock carts. Thus, farm lands beside the expressway are served without any hindrance. For most of the time, at least till 9.30 am, I did not have any company on the expressway, in the direction of my journey. I was most surprised to note that the expressway was completely devoid of freight trucks in both directions.
The 115th mile of restaurants is a massive complex. Fuel stations, vehicle repair shops, eateries and places to pick up odd stuff were all part of it. Tun Tun confidently walked into the Free Express restaurant, saying that it is famous all over Myanmar. By the time I had returned from the toilet he was already on his meal. There were a large number of dishes on display. I did not know if it was a set menu or whether I had to pick a la carte. After a while of looking and smelling (!), I played safe and picked up rice, fish curry and tofu. I have come to like the slightly flavoured sticky rice in Myanmar. There was a lot of confusion billing what we had eaten, but was sorted out after some delay. Three large meals had cost 9900 kyats, the equivalent of Rs. 600.
We reached the outskirts of Yangon and encountered traffic. It was just after half past one. 600 kms had been done in less than 6 hours of driving. I enjoyed the tensionless stretch. Myint, the government official, had to be dropped at the bus station. He was directly off to the border town of Myawady, where I would reach on 15 March. Besides, enquiring about the security in the area he would also ensure that paperwork is initiated for the exit on 16 March.
Prior to leaving on the expedition I had contacted all the Indian missions in the countries I intended visiting. The Ambassador had confirmed appointment on 14th in the embassy, on the condition that he was in station. A couple of days back I was informed that he is in India and therefore, would not be available to meet. On the approach to Yangon I spoke to the private secretary of the Ambassador to know if I could at least meet the second in command. Even he, I was informed, was on tour. I decided to skip the embassy visit, hence.
As we were driving to the hotel, inside the Yangon city, traffic had built up. But, with very few exceptions, lane discipline was observed and hand signals were respected. I was amazed not to hear sounds of horns despite so many vehicles on the road. Tun Tun told me that honking is banned in Yangon. I could not believe that such a restriction could be so effectively enforced. Traffic violations, I understood, were put down with a heavy fist and fines were heavy.
I had visited Yangon and Mandalay in 2003 as part of a backpacking trip. The changes I have seen since then, in the past dozen years, are nothing short of astounding. Road infrastructure has improved considerably that the concrete Mandalay-Yangon expressway is a prime illustration of the fact. I remember being stuck in some jungle in 2003 on the way to Yangon from Mandalay due to landslides and tree fall, which almost made me reschedule the departure to India. There are signs of economic buoyancy and wellbeing. In 2003 the country was seized by a series of student agitations and government crackdown, which made me feel a sense of despondency and cynicism among the youth. That has changed. Yangon used to be full of tuk tuks. That is a thing of the past. Two and three wheelers are banned in the city, which has given the city a sense of order. However, I was surprised that the busy city did not have a metro system. Tun Tun feels that the Japanese companies that control the used car market will never permit that to happen, as it will destroy a lucrative business. The fact that the government permits import of right hand drive vehicles almost exclusively from Japan, to be driven on the right side of the road, substantiated Tun Tun’s loaded observation to some extent.
Myu Min had promised a fabulous meal in Yangon. He invited me to the Shwe Kaung Hot Pot, just next door to the Golden Butterfly Hotel, where I was put up. He had invited the Advisor to his company, who was visiting from Oklahoma, USA. I decided against a hot pot dinner and settled for duck roast and honey glazed pork with the draught beer. Later, over stimulating discussion, both business related and general, I had seafood fried rice, avocado juice and strawberry shake. The fried rice was topped with generous portions of seafood and the fruit juices were heavenly.